The Rodney Dangerfield of PR

“Employee communication is the Rodney Dangerfield of PR.”

That’s the assessment of Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D., the Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama. While researching the latest literature on best practices in employee communication, I came across his excellent speech delivered in October 2011 to the PRSA International Conference. In it, Dr. Berger makes a compelling case that in spite of all the research proving the business value of employee communication — and there has been much in the last 10 years — it still gets no respect.

Dr. Berger argues that employee communication in most companies is “utter folly” because they “continue to act against their own self interests by perpetuating failed communication programs that drive employee distrust and
cynicism and reduce engagement and commitment.”

He adds: “We know what needs to be done to create cultures for communication, but too many organizations just don’t do it. They fail to move from KNOWING to DOING.”

I’ve chosen to make employee communication my career because I believe in its potential to change and drive organizations. I’m passionate about it (despite agreeing with Dr. Berger that employee communication is decidedly not as sexy as media relations or crisis communications). From the beginning, though, I had to dig deep for research that bears out employee communication’s value. Well, we have the research, so now there’s not much excuse for organizations that fail to actually do something.

Read Dr. Berger’s lecture here. It’s only 10 pages and worth every minute if you believe, as I do, that employee communication is the most important communication in which an organization can engage.

The Fine Line Between Proficient and Poser

I don’t like being the new guy in the office. After 12 years of self-employment, I recently rejoined the corporate workforce. While I like my new job, my co-workers and the company I work for, I can’t stand not knowing all the particulars about how to do my new work, where I can go for the information and expertise I need and how things are done around here.

That will come with time, of course — it’s only been three weeks — but I am impatient when it comes to these things. After nearly 25 years in this profession, I had gotten used to knowing how to get things done — or, at least, acting as if I do.

There is a fine line between proficient and poser and I have walked it successfully for many years now. Allow me to explain.

I know how to do certain things very well. I can write and edit other people’s writing. I know how to form strong relationships. I know how to analyze communication problems and suggest effective solutions. I know how to think strategically, to build a plan and to measure my work. I know how to teach others about my craft.

But when it comes to certain specifics, I know nothing. As a consultant, when I began working with a new client, I knew little to nothing about them. I didn’t know the culture of their organization. I didn’t know their processes and their internal politics. Often I didn’t know their industry or the products they made or the services they provided. I had to learn all of that fairly quickly.

This lack of knowledge used to rattle me. But early in my self-employment, a more experienced consultant advised me: “Never tell a client you don’t know how to do something. If they ask you to do something and you can’t do it or have never done it before, just say ‘Sure, I can do that,’ and find someone who can.”

That’s called “faking it ’til you make it.” Well, not really. It’s called providing total solutions for your client by assembling the right talent for the job and managing the project to successful completion.

Sometimes, the trick is to understand the real problem and apply your skills to it. One of my last clients, a large non-profit association, initially called about performing a communication audit. What they really wanted was for me and my partner to conduct in-depth interviews with staff regarding a difficult personnel situation involving one of their managers, to assess the problem and to recommend a range of solutions. Neither my partner nor I had ever performed this kind of human-resources work before, but we had the interviewing and analysis skills necessary to do it. So we did, and the client was pleased.

One of my new co-workers, herself a relative newcomer to the company, gave me some good advice. She encouraged me not to feel bad about not knowing anything. “Your job right now isn’t to produce, it’s to watch and learn.” I just need to get comfortable with that fact until I can start producing.

 

5 Traits of a Successful Independent Practitioner

I’m in the third week of my new job as employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company based in my hometown of Richmond, Va. It’s going about as well as I could hope. I wish the first few awkward weeks were behind me and that I was able to be more useful and productive than I am at this point.

As the length of time between my current situation and my self-employment widens, I gain greater perspective about those 12 years of my life. When I talk with friends, especially those who work in communication, the discussion often comes around to the adjustment I’m making to a new way of life. Yes, I miss the two-minute commute down the hall to my home-based office. Yes, I miss the flexibility with my time — being able to run to the grocery store during lunch, being there when my son gets home from school, the ability to schedule doctors’ appointments almost anytime during the day. But, of course, the benefits — and I mean that in the healthcare sense as well as more generally — help to balance things out.

A few people have asked me if I would recommend self-employment to someone considering it. So, with the benefit of said perspective, I thought I’d write about some of the traits of a successful independent practitioner. My work is PR and communications, so bear that in mind as you read on.

You must be comfortable with uncertainty. This is probably the greatest single trait necessary to succeed in self-employment. I mean uncertainty about everything, beginning with where your next paycheck will come from. Nothing is guaranteed except uncertainty itself. When I started my consulting practice in 2000, I (perhaps naïvely) was completely confident that I could succeed. That blind faith probably helped me more than it hurt because I simply proceeded as if I knew what I was doing and that there was no question I would make it. Even when I had to borrow money from my parents and take withdrawals from my 401k to pay a few bills in the early going. Fortunately, the clients grew and the income became more regular as I landed contract work, but there was always the chance that they would go away as quickly as they came. If you don’t have the stomach for uncertainty, don’t be self-employed.

You must be self-motivated. The first thing I did when I unexpectedly lost my job and, the next day, decided to start my business was to consult with my mentor and friend, Les Potter. He gave me some advice that I’ll never forget. “Get up in the morning, shave, shower, get dressed, go into your office and get to work,” he said. Doing what? “Anything. Make phone calls. Send emails. Read professional journals. Set up lunch meetings. The work will come.” He was right. To be successful as an independent practitioner, you must be able to motivate yourself to do those things and a lot more. It will be tempting to watch the afternoon baseball game on TV or do laundry or be distracted by any number of things. It’s fine to take time off now and then (but remember, you don’t get paid for it), but 95% of the time you must motivate yourself to work. Alone.

You must be able to work alone. I’m an extrovert. I draw energy from being around people. This was one of the hardest adjustments I had to make. The majority of my work was performed in my home office by myself. It was a gift that I eventually was part of a team of contractors working for one client because I got to be with them for a few hours a week. When Facebook came along, that became my water cooler. If you need to be around people to be productive, don’t work for yourself.

You must be willing to maintain networks of friends and colleagues. It’s more difficult to do this when you work on your own. I tried to regularly schedule lunch dates and attended PRSA meetings to maintain my professional network. It’s also important to work harder at keeping up your friendships and social life. It’s surprising how much of my social life revolved around work. I’m divorced and have dated quite a bit in the last 10 years. That was important to me, not only personally, but also because it energized me for work. That might seem weird, but it was true for me. My dad recently said that being a full-time employee with a great company that pays well and provides benefits will make me more attractive in the dating arena. I’m not sure how much more attractive I am, but he is right that what we do has a big impact on the people we’re with.

You must assess the real cost of being self-employed. Not only is your income less stable, but you incur much greater costs. You must pay quarterly taxes, buy your own health insurance, provide your own 401k, maintain your own equipment (computers, printers, software, telecommunications, etc.) and buy a lot of little things that might not be apparent. Sit down and formulate a budget — not just for your business but a personal budget as well — and determine the real cost of working for yourself. It might surprise you.

Those are five of the traits you must possess to be a successful independent practitioner. If you’ve been down this road before, please add your own in the comments below. One thing I’ve also learned is that everyone’s experience is unique.

Things I’ll Miss — and Some I Won’t

As I shared in my previous post, I’ve accepted a full-time job as employee communications manager for a Fortune 500 company, so I’m giving up my independent consulting practice after nearly 12 years.

In the interview process, we talked quite a bit about my experiences as a consultant — what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown, the good aspects of self-employment and the bad. As the reality of giving up my business and joining a company has begun to sink in, I’ve had even more time to reflect. I thought I’d share some of the things I’ll miss and some I won’t.

What I’ll Miss

Flexibility with time. One of the great lures of self-employment is that you work on your own schedule. That’s not entirely true; you work when your clients need you, which sometimes can be at odd hours. Still, self-employment does provide some degree of flexibility with your time. I started my business when my sons were 8 and 4; I became a single parent when they were 10 and 6. I’m so grateful that I worked in an office in my home during those years and had more hands-on time with them than a corporate job would have allowed.

Working with a variety of clients. I have had so many wonderful experiences working with so many different people and organizations — some of which I never knew existed. (Who knew there was an entire industry of equipment-leasing brokers and that they had their own trade association?) I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best organizations and some of the best-known brands. But it’s the people and the myriad projects that I’ll really miss.

Growing a business. It’s exciting to start a business from scratch and watch it grow. There’s a different sense of personal fulfillment that is just not the same as you get with a corporate job. You know the success — or the failure — of the enterprise is largely up to you, which can be both a tremendously motivating factor and scary as hell.

Partnering with the best communicators. I’ve been fortunate to team up with some of the most talented people in my industry: Les Potter, Steve and Cindy Crescenzo, Shel Holtz and others. And I loved assembling great teams of people with skills complementary to my own: Katrina Gill of Gill Research, Katie Casler of Casler Design and others. I’ll greatly miss working with one of the best teams of independent contractors joined together for one client: Michele and Jonathan Rhudy of Rhudy & Co. Communications and Marketing, Jennifer Pounders of J. Pounders & Partners, and Wendy Martin of W Communications and Marketing.

What I Won’t Miss

Estimated taxes. Self-employed workers get hammered with taxes, which come due every three months. I am happy to pay my taxes because even with all the government waste this is still a safe country filled with opportunity. But that doesn’t make writing those checks much easier.

Lack of benefits. The cost of my health insurance has skyrocketed over the 12 years I’ve been self-employed. Whenever I took a day or (rarely) a week off, that was a day or week with no income. It will be nice to work for a company that provides great benefits.

The cost of doing business. It’s amazing how many things you take for granted when you work for a company. Copier paper. Toner. IT support. Communication devices. Travel expenses paid up front. They all add up, even if you’re thrifty like I am, and I won’t miss them coming out of my pocket.

Unpredictable income. You can plan and market and work hard, but ultimately your monthly income depends on whether you have clients and how much work they give you. I look back in amazement that I made it sometimes, especially in the early days of my venture. Having a regular paycheck is a luxury I’ll never take for granted.

Loneliness. I am an extrovert, a “people person.” I draw energy from being around others. Although I have done my share of work in the offices of my clients, a great majority of my days were spent in this little office over my garage. The silence can be deafening. I can’t wait to have regular human contact again.

On the whole, I wouldn’t trade the last 12 years for anything. This time has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life. But the time is right to leave it behind for the next great adventure. And I can’t wait!

Rearranging the Furniture

Every six months or so, my dad rearranges the furniture in his house. He has always done this. He did the same thing to his office when he was still working. He declared that a change in perspective is good for the soul.

The same is true in other aspects of our lives. I guess that’s why people change hair styles, eyeglasses, cars, houses and, unfortunately, sometimes spouses. (I’m not advocating the latter; in fact, healthy changes within a marriage can make it exciting again.)

I’m about to rearrange the furniture of my career. After nearly 12 years as an independent consultant, I’m rejoining the ranks of full-time corporate employment. I’ve accepted a job as employee communications manager with a Fortune 500 company based here in Richmond, Va. I’m not mentioning the name of the company in this blog because I don’t yet know what the company’s social media policy says about such things. But it’s a global business and a strong company with great people, as far as I can tell.

I’m excited about this new chapter in my life. Yet, it is bittersweet. Anyone who has poured their heart and soul into a business they’ve built from scratch knows what I’m talking about. It’s like saying goodbye to one of your kids.

I’ll write more about this change in the days ahead. That will help me process what is happening and, hopefully, will give you some things to think about, too. I don’t blog now nearly as often as I’d like, but I hope to continue even after my start date of January 3, 2012.

For now, I’m going to sit in the rearranged furniture and try to get used to it. I’m sure I’ll see some things that I haven’t seen before.

 

A Wild Ride in the Communication Business

Today marks the 11th birthday of my consulting business, Holland Communication Solutions LLC. The Virginia State Corporation Commission document is dated June 21, 2000.

Being in a bit of a sentimental mood, I’ve been thinking back on what a wild ride the last 11 years have been. I’ve learned so much and I’ve had the privilege of working with some outstanding clients.

Invoice #0001 was billed to Ragan Communications, the publisher of resources and producer of conferences for communication professionals. Actually, I owe a lot to the folks at Ragan. Not only were they my first client, but in my previous corporate life, I learned an awful lot about this business by reading their newsletters and attending their conferences. They’ve also published a lot of my writing and allowed me to take the podium at many of their productions.

I’ve done hundreds of jobs for scores of other clients, too. And I’ve done some things I never dreamed I would do:

  • I learned the ins and outs of a machine that packages poultry products so I could write the script for a training video about the equipment.
  • I wrote a booklet for an obscure trade association about how to succeed in their business after interviewing a dozen of their most successful members.
  • I spoke about effective communication to a roomful of engineers for a defense contractor in the desert outside Las Vegas.
  • I helped a multinational company in the nuclear power industry figure out how to overcome their communication barriers.
  • I produced a brochure explaining the dangers of radon gas for a one-man business that helps homeowners get rid of it.
  • I helped a church market its Sunday evening coffeehouse program.
  • I’ve consulted with some of the best-known brands as well as one-person shops just getting off the ground.
  • I’ve spoken about communication in some interesting places — Las Vegas, Chicago, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., Charleston, S.C., the Tuskeegee Institute, a U.S. Naval Base, beautiful mountain resorts and bland corporate conference rooms.

The purpose of all this is not to boast, but to reflect on just how fortunate I have been to do such a variety of things — some of them fascinating, some exasperating and others utterly fulfilling — all with the goal of improving communication among people in the workplace. I can’t think of many careers I’d rather pursue.

If you’ve been one of my clients over the years, thank you. I don’t take a single one for granted and I always learn something from each.

Writing: The No. 1 Skill for Communicators

Let me be unequivocal in how I say this: Writing is the most important skill a professional communicator can possess.

It amazes me that this remains a topic of debate, but it does. This week, our friends at Ragan.com posted an article titled “Does writing well still matter?” (I’m not providing a link because chances are the story will be behind their firewall by the time many of you read this.)

No communicator should have to ask that question. Of course writing well still matters — despite what some PR consultants and even practitioners have you believe. Anyone in a communication profession who suggests otherwise is simply trying to appear leading-edge and oh-so-21st century. The argument goes that in this day of social media, short attention spans and businesses focusing on the bottom line, other skills are more important to communicators — such as strategic thinking, problem solving and the ability to get results.

The truth is strategic thinking, problem solving and the ability to get results flow directly out of a communicator’s ability to assimilate a multitude of information, shape it into a coherent message that supports business objectives, and then articulate that message in ways that will be well received by audiences. That’s what we do. Without a communicator’s ability to write well, all the strategic thinking, problem solving and results focus in the world won’t do us or our employers any good.

To say the ability to write is not the No. 1 skill communicators need is like saying the ability to operate on a patient is not the No. 1 skill a surgeon needs. It’s a ridiculous statement.

You will find no greater advocate of strategic thinking than I. If we don’t bring that skill — along with myriad others — to the table, then we won’t serve our clients or employers well. The ability to write, though, is the must-have for professional communicators.

I’m an adjunct university instructor in public relations and I can tell you the next generation of communicators needs strong instruction in writing. I don’t entirely blame the students. I believe our public school systems largely fail to teach kids to write, but that’s another discussion for another time.

I’m excited to be teaching a Writing for PR class next semester, the first time I’ve taught this particular subject. I can tell you this: the students who take my class will know how to write before they move on. The objective, after all, is to set them up for success in their future careers.

Letting Go

I let go of my firstborn last week.

After 18 years, the last 8 as a single dad, I helped him pack just about every one of his wordly possessions in a car, drove him 235 miles north and let him go. After moving his things into a sparse room and making sure he had enough money to buy notebooks and do his laundry, we stood outside his dormitory building.

“Well, I think I have things under control in my room,” he said. “If you need to hit the road, you can go ahead.”

In other words, “All right, Dad. Time to leave.”

I was sad for me, but not for him. Max was ready to be on his own. He admitted some apprehension as we neared the campus, but mostly excitement. He has been ready for several months, in fact. He’s confident (maybe a little too confident), he’s self-assured, he knows who he is and he’s not the kind of guy who will let anyone else convince him otherwise.

My parenting philosophy always has been that we aren’t raising children. We’re raising future adults. In other words, success as a parent is when our children are ready to leave home at the appropriate time (usually 18). If they’re ready to leave, if they don’t cry when we pull out of the dorm parking lot, if they don’t get homesick after a week, and if we don’t fret over their ability to make good decisions without our input, we’ve done our job.

Of course, it’s harder on us parents. We worry about their safety. We hope they remember how to put sheets on the bed. We pray they’ll use good judgment. We wonder where the time went.

Believe it or not, there’s an application of this life lesson to our work as communicators. Actually, it applies to many professions, but I’ll apply it to mine.

In every corporate job I ever had, I created a product that felt like my child. Mostly, they were publications. They were my children. I created — or re-created — them by contributing bits and pieces of who I am. I shaped them. I helped discover their personalities. I taught them how to speak to employees, how to be expressive and creative. When they made mistakes, I helped pick them up and dust them off and learn from the error of their ways.

And eventually I had to let them go. In most cases, I turned them over to the care of others. It was painful, but it was the right thing to do. I had to trust that they had matured to the point that they would continue to do good in the world of that organization.

We can’t claim so tight a hold on what we create that we’re afraid to let it go when it’s time. We need to move on to new phases of our careers and let others have a chance to influence what we’ve created. If we did a good job, the core of our creation will remain even as it grows, changes and adapts.

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t shed a tear as we drive away.

Fight the Good Communication Fight

Should a communication professional quit if the leader of the business doesn’t buy into or support communication?

Some interesting discussions are happening around this topic on several blogs. I thought I’d bring it up here, too, so that readers of this blog can debate this critically important issue. (Props to Jon Buscall for the original post and to Nancy Myrland for bringing it to my attention.)

The two bloggers who previously raised the question put it in the context of social media. If a CEO doesn’t “get” social media, should the marketer responsible for social media stick around? A lot of CEOs don’t participate in Facebook or Twitter, watch YouTube or write blogs. Many, in fact, are intimidated by social media and perhaps a bit fearful of it. Despite its growth, social media is still a relatively new set of tools for marketing and public relations.

I would extend the discussion to communication in general. Amazingly, many business leaders still don’t see the value of a comprehensive, strategic approach to communication. They do it when they have to, but otherwise they avoid it at all costs. They especially don’t believe it’s important to communicate with employees because, heaven knows, they don’t want the people who work for the company to know too much about what’s going on. They might start questioning management practices or leak company secrets to the media or unionize.

I’ve encountered such attitudes many times in my corporate career and as a consultant. At times I’ve been so frustrated that I swore I was ready to give up and walk out. If someone hired to help the company communicate can’t do his job because the business leader doesn’t believe in communication, what’s the use in sticking around?

In her blog post, Nancy Myrland encourages communicators, specifically marketers who work in social media, not to give up. “It’s our job to do what we can to teach them, to get through to them, and to try our best to advance the ball,” she writes. “You need a much thicker skin that allows you to be the champion of these initiatives, or any initiatives that fall within your area of responsibility.”

Young communicators especially need a thick skin and patience. I’m afraid that digital natives, the generation that grew up with technology and social media, are too prone to impatience. They want things to change now. While I admire such high expectations, they simply are not realistic. Most organizations, no matter what they might claim, are slow to change. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to lead them to change leaders’ attitudes about social media or communication in general. It just means that it’s likely to take some time.

It’s time that is often well spent, too. When we have to work to bring business leaders around to the value of communication (and to engaging via social media), we are forced to think more strategically and less tactically.

Myrland continues with this case for strategic thinking: “If you’ve helped the company or firm by creating a thorough marketing plan, then all of the plan’s sections will logically lead to the right tools, or tactics, to accomplish what is set out in the goals section of that plan, whether they be social media or any other kind of communication and sales tactics.  At this point, you can then point out the right sites and tools to help accomplish what has been identified in the plan.”

That’s exactly how I helped convert an old-school plant manager from someone who eschewed communication to someone who embraced it. I used case studies, best practices and a strategic mindset to demonstrate how communication could help the business.

It took a long time and I often felt like giving up, but I’m glad I didn’t. I learned as much in the process as the plant manager did.

Communicators, I feel your pain when you’re stuck working for a business leader who doesn’t see the value in what you do. Don’t quit too soon. Stick with it and fight the good fight. You never know when that breakthrough will occur.

Communication Where it Matters Most: The Factory Floor

Last week I spent some time with a manager who is responsible for communication in the manufacturing center of one of my clients. We were talking about her plan to communicate upcoming changes to the product packaging — why they were happening, but more important, what was happening.

It’s important for the people who work on the line to know what to expect with the changes. Lack of awareness could lead to confusion, which could lead to disruptions in the manufacturing line, which in turn could affect the bottom line.

It reminded me how much I love working on communication with manufacturing employees. It also reminded me how difficult “factory floor” communication can be.

I love the manufacturing environment because that’s where the action is. Sure, it’s easier and more comfortable to develop and implement communications with office workers. But when it comes right down to it, for a company that makes things, the factory floor is the most important place and manufacturing employees are the most important audience. What they make brings revenue to the company.

If everyone knows what to do and how to do it and why the business is being run the way it is and how their actions affect customers, the company thrives and people throughout it keep their jobs. If nobody knows or cares about what’s going on, if decisions and changes aren’t explained and customers are nothing more than a faceless entity out there, the motivation to be productive disappears and job losses are sure to follow.

I spent 10 years working for two manufacturing companies, eight of those years in a factory and two of them in a headquarters position. I can tell you that when communicators in manufacturing companies lose touch with the needs of people on the factory floor, they do so at great risk to their companies’ success.

Yet it happens all the time. Here’s why:

  • Many communicators for manufacturing companies never work in manufacturing facilities. Spending eight years in a factory immersed me in that world. I gained not only a deep appreciation for the unique communication needs of manufacturing employees, but also a working knowledge of the processes so that I could develop communication programs that made sense for that environment. If you work for a manufacturing company and are assigned to a headquarters office, you need to get out and spend significant time — not just a day here or there — learning as much as you can about the factory and the people who work there.
  • Communicators who work at headquarters or in an office building adopt a headquarters mentality. I realize I’m generalizing, but my observation is that office dwellers get so caught up in their own worlds and their own work that they lose sight of what the company is in the business of doing. This is natural tendency and I’m not suggesting malicious intent, but it calls for intervening action to get out of headquarters mode. Again, visit the floor.
  • Business leaders don’t understand or appreciate the unique communication needs of manufacturing employees. Communicators often take their cues from business leaders. If the higher-ups don’t look at factory-floor communication as a priority, communicators probably won’t either. To be fair, sometimes communicators are sensitive to manufacturing communication issues, but their pleas fall on deaf ears. Communicators need to continue raising the issues with senior management. If we don’t, nobody else will.
  • Manufacturing communication is difficult, messy and requires an investment of time and money. When your audience is sitting in an office or cubicle, with easy access to the intranet and social media and face-to-face meetings, it’s relatively easy to communicate with them. To communicate with factory employees requires more work and usually more resources. Face-to-face meetings are time off the floor, which is lost productivity. Print is an effective channel for factory workers, but it can be expensive and time-consuming. There are ways around these challenges, but it takes creativity and hard work — and a commitment from senior management to make it happen.

I was the first professional communicator in the factory where I started my career. It was also my first corporate communications job, so it took some time for me to figure out why communication was important to that audience and how to do it efficiently and effectively. As I learned, I educated my senior management.

By the time I left that job, communication was an integral part of the facility’s culture. It took time and a lot of patience. It also took persistence on my part. I didn’t just fold up and let it go when I met obstacles. I persevered because I understood how important it was to communicate with manufacturing employees. If you are a communicator for a manufacturing company, I urge you to do the same. Effective communication at the factory floor level is worth the effort. The impact is potentially huge because that’s where communication matters the most.

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